Pliny the Elder on Ancient Memory Feats

Pliny the Elder wrote about memory feats in his work, The Natural History. Here are a few things he had to say circa 77-79 C.E.:

Chapter 24 of book 7 is called “Examples of memorie”. The following text was translated in 1601 by Philemon Holland. If the archaic English is difficult to read, just skim through it and there is a modern English list that follows.

As touching memorie, the greatest gift of Nature, and most necessarie of all others for this life; hard it is to judge and say who of all others deserved the cheefe honour therein: considering how many men have excelled, and woon much glorie in that behalfe. King Cyrus was able to call every souldior that he had through his whole armie, by his owne name. L. Scipio could doe the like by all the citizens of Rome. Semblably, Cineas, Embassador of king Pyrrhus, the very next day that he came to Rome, both knew and also saluted by name all the Senate, and the whole degrees of Gentlemen and Cavallerie in the cittie. Mithridates the king, reigned over two and twentie nations of diverse languages, and in so many tongues gave lawes and ministred justice unto them, without truchman: and when hee was to make speech unto them in publicke assemblie respectively to every nation, he did performe it in their owne tongue, without interpretor. One Charmidas or Carmadas, a Grecian, [Carneades, according to Cicero and Quintilian] was of so singular a memorie, that he was able to deliver by heart the contents word for word of all the bookes that a man would call for out of any librarie, as if he read the same presently within a booke. At length the practise hereof was reduced into an art of Memorie: devised and invented first by Simonides Melicus, and afterwards brought to perfection and consummate by Metrodorus Scepsius: by which a man might learne to rehearse againe the same words of any discourse whatosever, after once hearing. And yet there is not a thing in man so fraile and brittle againe as it is, whether it be occasioned by disease, by casual injuries and occurrents, or by feare, through which it faileth sometime in part, and otherwhiles decaieth generally, and is cleane lost. One with the stroke of a stone, fell presently to forget his letters onely, and could read no more: otherwise his memorie served him well ynough. Another, with a fall from the roufe of a very high house, lost the remembrance of his own mother, his next kinsfolke, friends, and neighbours. Another, in a sicknesse of his forgot his owne servants about him: and Messala Corvinus the great Oratour, upon the like occasion, forgot his owne proper name. So fickle and slipperie is mans memorie: that oftentimes it assaieth and goeth about to leese it selfe, even whiles a mans bodie is otherwise quiet and in health. But let sleep creepe at any time upon us, it seemeth to be vanquished, so as our poore spirit wandereth up and down to seeke where it is, and to recover it againe.

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder


Here are the memory feats that Pliny the Elder mentions, with somewhat modernized English:

  1. King Cyrus knew the name of every soldier in his entire army. (I couldn’t find the exact size of his army, but Wikipedia says he had an elite unit of “Immortals” with 10,000 men.)
  2. L. Scipio could name all the citizens of Rome. (Depending on whether it was this one or this one, there may have been 200,000 to 300,000 citizens in Rome.)
  3. One day after arriving in Rome, Cineas, Embassador of king Pyrrhus, both knew and saluted by name all the Senate, Gentlemen, and Cavallerie [knights?] in the city.
  4. Mithridates the king, reigned over 22 nations of diverse languages, and in so many tongues gave laws and ministered justice to them: and he gave speeches to them in their own languages without interpreters.
  5. Charmidas or Carmadas, a Grecian, [Carneades, according to Cicero and Quintilian] was able to deliver by heart the contents word for word of all the books that a man would call for out of any library, as if he read the same presently within a book.
  6. The art of memory was devised and invented first by Simonides Melicus and perfected by Metrodorus Scepsius, by which a man might learn to rehearse again the same words of any discourse whatosever, after once hearing.

Do these memory feats seem realistic?

To me, #1 sounds like an exaggeration. It’s the kind of story that someone would say about a person who makes an effort to remember everyone’s name (possibly using mnemonics), and generally doesn’t forget the name after that.

Feat #2 doesn’t seem realistically possible.

Feat #3 might be possible for a trained mnemonist, depending on how many people there were.

Feat #4 might be possible to some extent, and/or it might be a flattering exaggeration for a king.

I think I’ve seen Derren Brown perform feat #5. Maybe back then, a library didn’t have that many books, but I’m skeptical of this one.

Feat #6 seems a bit exaggerated, if he means word-for-word, but it’s conceivable that someone could be trained to memorize the basic topics of a conversation in real time.

What do you think?

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